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Asian American Studies Research Guide: Primary Sources

Primary Sources

Primary sources are documents that were recorded or written down at the time an event occurred. Primary sources can include diaries, journals, memoirs, manuscripts letters, speeches, photographs, newspaper articles, interviews, government documents, and much more. For more information, see What are Primary Sources

To find primary sources held at the MSU Libraries, perform a keyword search in the library catalog with terms such as s:Chinese Americans or s:Japanese Americans and one of the following subject keyword(s)  s:archives; s:archival resources; s:correspondence; s:diaries; s:manuscripts; s:notebooks, sketchbooks, etc.; s:personal narratives; s:personnel records; s:records and correspondence; and s:sources.   The last option -- s:sources will probably be the most productive. 

Primary Sources from the Web

Using Primary Sources on the Web, Instruction and Research Services Committee, History Section, Reference and User Services Association, American Library Association, 2013.

Primary Sources Online Exhibit

Primary Sources Online Exhibit - Introduces the many types of primary sources used by researchers, with examples from Special Collections.  Courtesy of Ruth Ann Jones and Lesley Brown.

Sample Primary Sources, A-G (Online)

A-bomb survivors. About 1,150 survivors remain in North and South America, most of whom are in their 80s, Wake said. The MSU collection contains interviews from survivors from seven countries, collected by Japanese filmmaker Shinpei Takeda for his documentary “Hiroshima Nagasaki Download.”

Archives Unbound : Japanese American Relocation Camp Newspapers (Gale), see Japanese American Relocations Camp Newspapers.

Archives Unbound ; Personal Justice Denied: Public Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment (Gale),  see Personal Justice Denied....

Asian American  items in the MSU Libraries, Special Collections, American Radicalism Collection  :  Tracing the history of Asian Americans in the U.S., this digital collection includes information about the regulation of Chinese immigration in the late 19th century and, illustrated by impressive photographs, the internment of more than 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry during the World War II.

Asian American Drama.  Provides access to 252 plays by 42 playwrights, together with detailed, fielded information on related productions, theaters, production companies, and more.  Some 50% of these plays have never been published before. The database also includes selected playbills, production photographs and other ephemera related to the plays. The plays themselves have been selected using leading bibliographies and with the editorial advice of Josephine D. Lee, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; Esther S. Kim, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; James S. Moy, University of New Mexico; and Karen Shimakawa, University of California, Davis.

China : culture and society : the Wason Pamphlet Collection, Cornell University, 1750-1929 1800-1929.    Marlborough, England : Adam Matthew Digital ; [Chicago, Ill.] : Adam Matthew Education [North American distributor], [2012], ©2012. : Be sure to check the documents under the category Chinese Diaspora.

The Chinese American Experience, 1857-1892. Includes an online essay on the history of Chinese Americans, plus many articles from the influential 19th century newspaper Harper's Weekly.

The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 illustrates nineteenth and early twentieth century Chinese immigration to California through about 8,000 images and pages of primary source materials. Included are photographs, original art, cartoons and other illustrations; letters, excerpts from diaries, business records, and legal documents; as well as pamphlets, broadsides, speeches, sheet music, and other printed matter. These documents describe the experiences of Chinese immigrants in California, including the nature of inter-ethnic tensions. They also document the specific contributions of Chinese immigrants to commerce and business, architecture and art, agriculture and other industries, and cultural and social life in California. Chinatown in San Francisco receives special treatment as the oldest and largest community of Chinese in the United States. Also included is documentation of smaller Chinese communities throughout California, as well as material reflecting on the experiences of individuals. Although necessarily selective, such a large body of materials presents a full spectrum of representation and opinion. The materials in this online compilation are drawn from collections at The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley; The Ethnic Studies Library, University of California Berkeley; and The California Historical Society, San Francisco.   Originally part of the Library of Congress, American Memory Project.  Now hosted by University of California Berkeley.

Densho: The Japanese American Legacy Project, Nisei Vue and Scene MagazinesDensho is an incredible digital database of primary source materials pertaining to the World War II incarceration of Japanese Americans. The archives include numerous oral interviews of former prisoners and over 12,000 historic photos, documents, and periodicals, including entire runs of the newspapers published by each of the camps. In partnership with Los Angeles’s Japanese American National Museum, Densho now contains approximately 70 issues of two landmark journals produced in Chicago during the early resettlement years: Nisei Vue (1948-1950) and Scene (1949-1955).  he form and contents of Nisei Vue and Scene were nearly identical.  The duo followed the format of popular pictorials of the day such as Life and Look: lighthearted, lifestyle-oriented, and feature-focused.  As Densho editor Brian Niiya notes, “Both highlighted ‘successful’ Nisei and ideal Nisei life, mixing in articles about Japan and Japanese culture. Both usually featured attractive Nisei women on the cover and neither was above the occasional cheesecake feature.” Nisei Vue, however, was much shorter-lived, lasting only from Spring 1948 to March 1950, while Scene ran from May 1949 to September 1955. Coverage in both spanned a range of orientations: local, national, trans-Pacific, and hemispheric (i.e. Japanese Brazilians). Weighty concerns such as children of unwed Nisei mothers, immigration reform, and US-Japan relations contrasted with playful and aspirational narratives (“Chicago girls, girls, girls”; “Young Hawaiians Start Surf Club”; “War Bride Becomes an American Housewife”). Together, Nisei Vue and Scene offer a rare glimpse into the postwar world of Japanese America: one that continued to grapple with the traumas of incarceration even as it was determined to move onward and upward.

Densho Blog - The Densho Digital Archive holds over 550 visual histories (more than 1,100 hours of recorded video interviews) and over 10,800 historic photos, documents, and newspapers. The archive is growing as Densho continues to record life histories and collect images and records. These primary sources document the Japanese American experience from immigration in the early 1900s through redress in the 1980s with a strong focus on the World War II mass incarceration.

Early Chinese Immigration to the US. The advent of the railroad brought about many changes to the United States, including an early wave of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese laborers were the backbone of the Transcontinental Railroad’s creation, and worked diligently in other difficult industrial jobs for low wages. During this period, they faced intense racial discrimination both socially and politically. This culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which placed new obstacles in the way of Chinese and other Asian immigrants looking to come to America. In particular, the act placed limits and exclusions on laborers, not wealthy businessmen from China looking to immigrate. The following set of resources provides photos, documents, and oral histories that help tell the story of this early period of Chinese immigration to the United States. Courtesy of Hillary Brady, Digital Public Library of America.

East meets West / by Blanche Ching-Yi Wu ; [edited by Ru Chih Huang and Pat Sonquist Lane].  [Baltimore, Md.] : [R.C. Huang], [1985?] : Excerpts from the North American immigrant letters, diaries and oral histories

Government photography of the WRA Camps and Resettlement. A subset of the Densho Encylopedia.

Sample Primary Sources, H-Z (Online

Japanese American Internment During World War II. Compounding a long history of discrimination against Japanese immigrants to the US, Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor cast suspicion on America’s Japanese citizens and residents. By early 1942, fear of Japanese American collusion in Japan’s war effort prompted the US government to suspend the rights of its Japanese American citizens and relocate them to concentration camps. This decision, delivered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Executive Order 9066, aimed to remove Japanese Americans from the West Coast “exclusion area” where they had access to established channels of communication with Japan.... In all, the US War Relocation Authority evacuated more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and transplanted them, first to regional assembly centers, and then to ten relocation centers in remote outposts in the US interior. Of these 110,000, about two-thirds were American-born Nisei (second generation) and Sansei (third generation) and the rest Japanese-born Issei. In the camps, Japanese Americans lived in hastily-constructed barracks in extreme conditions, and struggled to overcome the stresses of internment and dislocation. Despite the suddenness and completeness of their removal from regular life, Japanese Americans resisted isolation by continuing to pursue education, religious worship, and family and community engagement in the camps. The US government subjected internees to loyalty questionnaires and offers to repatriate them to Japan in an effort to identify and contain subversive, disloyal Japanese Americans. Simultaneously, it recruited Nisei to enlist in the US Armed Forces.... By the end of 1944, two cases before the US Supreme Court had attempted to challenge the constitutionality of internment. Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of evacuation in wartime, they ruled the incarceration of Japanese Americans unconstitutional. As a result of these decisions and the coming end of World War II, the US government began to release internees and close camps, shuttering nine of ten camps by the end of 1945. Japanese Americans returned to lives that had been taken from them—abandoned businesses, damaged and appropriated property, and stolen assets. This primary source set uses documents and photographs to tell the story of Japanese American internment during World War II.... Courtesy of Franky Abbott, the Digital Public Library of America.

Japanese-American Relocation Camp Newspapers (Gale Cengage Archives Unbound).  : Japanese-American Relocation Camp Newspapers: Perspectives on Day-to-Day Life offers scholars rare first-person accounts and seldom-heard voices. By recording the concerns and challenges of the interned Japanese-Americans, this collection delivers new levels of depth and credibility. Use this unique digital resource to support research in Asian studies, ethnic studies, social history, journalism, law, conflict studies, World War II studies and more....In the months following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government was besieged with demands that action be taken against citizens of Japanese descent – motivated by the fear that Japanese-Americans would become a fifth column for the Japanese military command. By April 1942, more than 100,000 persons – resident aliens and American citizens alike – were moved to relocation centers run by the War Relocation Authority. Many of the 25 titles in this collection are complete or substantially complete. Editions have been carefully collated and omissions are noted. Although articles in these files frequently appear in Japanese, most of the papers are in English or in dual text....For more information, download a Product Fact Sheet [pdf, 633 KB]

Japanese American Relocation Camp Newspapers. Heart Mountain Sentinel (Cody, Wyoming Relocation Camp), November 7, 1942-June 2, 1945 (microfilm 29073);  Manzanar Free Press  (Manzanar, CA Relocation Camp), June 2, 1942-July 1, 1944;   Newell Star (Newell, CA Relocation Camp), March 9, 1944 - Feb. 15, 1946. Access restricted to MSU community and MSU Library visitors.

Japanese American Relocation Collection This collection of over 200 photographs from the Hearst collection documents the relocation of Japanese Americans in California during World War II. Courtesy of the University of Southern California Digital Library.

Japanese American Relocation Digital Archives (JARDA). This portal contains thousands of Japanese American internment primary source materials, including : (1) Personal diaries, letters, photographs, and drawings; (2) US War Relocation Authority materials, including camp newsletters, final reports, photographs, and other documents relating to the day-to-day administration of the camps; (3) Personal histories documenting the lives of the people who lived in the camps as well as the administrators who created and worked in the camps. Courtesy of the University of California.

Korean American Digital Archive.  This collection brings more than 13,000 pages of documents, over 1,900 photographs, and about 180 sound files together in one searchable collection that documents the Korean American community during the period of resistance to Japanese rule in Korea and reveal the organizational and private experience of Koreans in America between 1903 and 1965. Courtesy of the University of Southern California Digital Library.

Life Interrupted : The Japanese American Experience in WWII Arkansas.  During World War II, the United States government placed over 120,000 Japanese Americans from the west coast and Hawaii in ten war relocation camps. Two of those camps were located in southeastern Arkansas. One in Rohwer, the other in Jerome. Life Interrupted will offer a unique opportunity to educate Arkansans and Americans on the unique struggle fo the Japanese American people during this trying time in our nation's past.

Online Archive of the Japanese American Relocation during World War II.  From 1941 to 1946, Occidental College President Remsen DuBois Bird and College Librarian Elizabeth McCloy made it their mission to preserve articles, newspapers, pamphlets, and other items related to the forced internment of persons of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast. Several years ago, a beneficent grant from the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation's Archival Grants Program made the digitization of these documents possible. The result is this engaging and important digital collection, which includes close to 300 items. At the heart of this collection are the 275 letters and papers from the correspondence of President Bird. As their website suggests "The correspondence offers a rich resource for learning more about the issues of higher education, civil liberties and actions of individuals during the forced evacuation of the Japanese Americans during World War II." Users can use the "Search Archive" tab to access the collection, and they will probably want to take a look at the topical headings here or just use the drop-down "Letters" tab to look through select letters.

Oral History Interviews (Hope College/Holland Joint Archives).. An extensive collection of oral history transcripts covering a variety of events, ethnic groups, and citizens of Holland, Michigan. Includes sections on members of the Hispanic community (1990), Dutch immigrants (1992), Hispanic residents (1993), and Asian and African American Residents (1994).

Personal Justice Denied : Public Hearings of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment, 1981.  Gale Cengage Archives Unbound.  : On February 19, 1942, ten weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 giving the Secretary of War and delegated military commanders the power to exclude any and all persons, citizens and aliens, from designated areas in order to provide security against sabotage, espionage and fifth column activity. Shortly thereafter, all American citizens of Japanese descent were prohibited from living, working or traveling on the West Coast of the United States. The same prohibition applied to the generation of Japanese immigrants who, pursuant to federal law and despite long residence in the United States, were not permitted to become American citizens. Initially, this exclusion was to be carried out by "voluntary" relocation. That policy inevitably failed, and these American citizens and their alien parents were removed by the Army, first to "assembly centers"—temporary quarters at racetracks and fairgrounds—and then to "relocation centers"—bleak barrack camps mostly in desolate areas of the West. The camps were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by military police. Departure was permitted only after a loyalty review on terms set, in consultation with the military, by the War Relocation Authority. Many of those removed from the West Coast were eventually allowed to leave the camps to join the Army, go to college, or to whatever private employment was available. For a larger number, however, the war years were spent behind barbed wire until the prohibition was lifted in December 1944....This digital collection consists of testimony and documents from more than 750 witnesses: Japanese Americans and Aleuts who had lived through the events of WWII, former government officials who ran the internment program, public figures, internees, organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League, interested citizens, historians, and other professionals who had studied the subjects of the Commission's inquiry. Many of the transcripts are personal stories of experiences of evacuees. Documents include publications, reports, press releases, photographs, newspaper clippings, etc. related to the hearings.

SEAAdoc: Documenting the Southeast Asian American Experience  This UC-Irvine resource provides access to primary and other resource material focusing on the experience of post-1975 refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) of Chicago documents, preserves and provides access to the history of the South Asian American community.  The South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) was founded in 2008 in order to document and provide access to the diverse and relatively unknown stories of South Asian Americans. Our collection reflects the vast range of experiences of the South Asian diaspora in the United States, including those who trace their heritage to Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the many South Asian diaspora communities across the globe.

United Farm Workers and the Delano Grape Strike. On September 8, 1965, Filipino farm workers organized as the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) decided to strike against grape growers in Delano, California, to protest years of poor pay and working conditions. The Delano Grape Strike grew from a long history of labor organizing and protest by Filipino workers in agriculture and canning on the West Coast. AWOC leaders asked the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), a mostly Latino farm workers union led by Cesar Chavez, to join their strike. The Delano Grape Strike was the first major collaboration between Filipino and Mexican workers, who had traditionally been recruited to work during the other group’s protest actions. In August 1966, the two organizations merged to form the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union committed to nonviolent protest that sought to organize migrant farm laborers to improve their wages, education, housing, and legal protections.... The protest that began in the fields in Delano grew into a broader boycott that asked for help from consumers in urban areas. By 1970, the UFW grape boycott was a success. Table grape growers signed their first union contracts, granting workers better pay, benefits, and protections. In the decades that followed, Chavez and the UFW continued to use nonviolent strikes, boycotts, marches, and fasts to help farm workers stand up for their rights and gather support from ordinary Americans to aid them in their efforts. This primary source set uses documents, photographs, and promotional materials to explore the events of the Delano Grape Strike and the formation of the United Farm Workers....  Courtesy of Franky Abbott, Digital Public Library of America.

Veterans' Stories: Struggles for Participation : Women and people of color have often had to overcome obstacles in order to participate fully in the U.S. armed forces. Veterans tell their stories through interviews, memoirs, and photographs. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Westward Expansion: Encounters at a Cultural Crossroads : The expansion of the U.S. westward and the encounters that resulted are documented in photographs, sheet music, maps, letters, oral history, and more. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among the Ghosts (1976) weaves together elements from traditional Chinese folktales and incidents from the author’s experiences or family stories in five interconnected chapters. These chapters follow the lives of several women while they lived in China and/or after immigration to the United States: Kingston, her mother Brave Orchid, and her aunts, Moon Orchid and No Name Woman. Kingston, a first-generation Chinese-American, was born in Stockton, California, in 1940. The book uses recurring consideration of voices, stories, and ghosts to develop its various themes, including the transmission of culture across generations and the importance of gender and memory to the immigrant experience. The Woman Warrior won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named one of the top nonfiction books of the 1970s by Time. This source set includes photographs and other items useful for exploring the book’s context, contents, and impact. Courtesy of Franky Abbott, Digital Public Library of America.

Sample Primary Sources (Print)

Asian American Experiences in the United States : Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans from China, the Philippines, Japan, India, the Pacific islands, Vietnam, and Cambodia / by Joann Faung Jean LeeJefferson, N.C. : McFarland, c1991.  228pp.  Main Library E184.O6 L44 1991 : Reflectons on living in America; Aspects of Americanization; Reflections on Interracial Marriage.

Asian Americans in the Twenty-First Century : Oral Histories of First- to Fourth-Generation Americans from China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos / [compiled by] Joann Faung Jean LeeNew York : New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton, 2008.  277pp.  Main Library E184.A75 A8434 2008  : A tribute to today's culturally diverse Asian-American population draws on interviews with individuals from all walks of life about their experiences and Asian-American identity, from a contributor to a landmark legal case affecting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II to the complex relationship between African Americans and Koreans in Los Angeles.

Chinese American Voices : From the Gold Rush to the Present / edited with introductions by Judy Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai.  Berkeley : University of California Press, c2006.  462pp.  Main Library E184.C5 C479 2006 : Described by others as quaint and exotic, or as depraved and threatening, and, more recently, as successful and exemplary, the Chinese in America have rarely been asked to describe themselves in their own words. This superb anthology, a diverse and illuminating collection of primary documents and stories by Chinese Americans, provides an intimate and textured history of the Chinese in America from their arrival during the California Gold Rush to the present. Among the documents are letters, speeches, testimonies, oral histories, personal memoirs, poems, essays, and folksongs; many have never been published before or have been translated into English for the first time. They bring to life the diverse voices of immigrants and American-born; laborers, merchants, and professionals; ministers and students; housewives and prostitutes; and community leaders and activists. Together, they provide insight into immigration, work, family and social life, and the longstanding fight for equality and inclusion. Featuring photographs and extensive introductions to the documents written by three leading Chinese American scholars, this compelling volume offers a panoramic perspective on the Chinese American experience and opens new vistas on American social, cultural, and political history.

"Chink!" A documentary history of anti-Chinese prejudice in America / Edited and with an introd. by Cheng-Tsu Wu. Foreword by Ben Fong-Torres.  New York : World Pub., [1972]  289pp.  Main LibraryE184.C5 W74 1972   :

The Columbia documentary history of the Asian American experience / Franklin Odo.  New York : Chichester : Columbia University Press, 2002.  590pp.  E184.O6 C642 2002 : A collection of documents that can serve as a reference for researchers, students, and the general public, particularly in tandem with Gary Okihiro's 2001 The Columbia Guide to Asian American History . They were selected to illuminate issues and events of lasting historical significance for a range of Asian American ethnic groups. The arrangement is chronological, from before 1900 through 2000.

A Different Battle : Stories of Asian Pacific American Veterans / edited by Carina A. del Rosario ; with a historical essay by Ken Mochizuki and Carina A. del Rosario ; contemporary photographs by Dean Wong.  Seattle : Wing Luke Asian Museum : University of Washington Press, c1999.  127pp.  Main Library E184.O6 D55 1999 : In three major war, they looked like the enemy. Sometimes, they were segregated into their own military units. Other times, they were the only people of Asian or Pacific Islander descent in their companies or squadrons. Sometimes, they were accepted. Other times, they were assigned the most menial jobs. They were called "gooks." They had guns pointed at them by their own troops. A Different Battle features over 50 stories from veterans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent living in Washington. Their stories reveal the unique struggles Asian Pacific American veterans faced because of racism.

Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America. Primary Documents / edited by Jeffrey LehmanDetroit, MI : Gale Group, c1999.  2 volumes.  Main Library E184.A1 G15 1999 : Primary documents, including letters, articles, cartoons, photos, and songs, illuminate the experience of culture groups in the U.S. from colonial times to the present.

Major Problems in Asian American History : Documents and Essays / edited by Lon Kurashige, Alice Yang Murray.  Boston : Houghton Mifflin, c2003.  522pp.  Main Library E184.A75 M34 2003 : This collection, designed to be the primary anthology or textbook for courses in Asian American history, covers the subject's entire chronological span. The volume presents a carefully selected group of readings that requires students to evaluate primary sources, test the interpretations of distinguished historians, and draw their own conclusions.

Racism, dissent, and Asian Americans from 1850 to the present : a documentary history / edited by Philip S. Foner and Daniel Rosenberg.  Westport, Conn. : Greenwood Press, 1993.  311pp. Main Library E184.O6 R33 1993 : Drawing from a broad range of articles, speeches, pamphlets, sermons, debates, laws, and resolutions, this documentary collection focuses on support for the rights of Japanese and Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the United States. The book traces a 130-year period, culminating with the governmental redress for survivors of the Japanese evacuation and internment of World War II. Illustrating the scope and types of American dissent against anti-Asian thought, the volume highlights expressions from the clergy, the labor movement, the abolitionists, and figures such as Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, John Stuart Mill, and Carey McWilliams. Citing material never before published, it demonstrates Black support for Asian rights and the consistency of the IWW's solidarity with Chinese and Japanese-American workers. It is also the first work to treat seriously clergymen's efforts against anti-Asian discrimination.

Voices of the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience / Sang Chi and Emily Moberg Robinson, editors.  Santa Barbara, Calif. : Greenwood, c2012.  2 v. (xlv, 700 p.)  Main Library E184.A75 V65 2012 : In two volumes, Chi (history, Santa Monica College) and Robinson, who has taught history and Asian American studies at the U. of California, Santa Cruz, and Menlo College, collect about 200 primary source documents that chronicle the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience. Organized by ethnicity and then chronologically from the nineteenth century to the present, sections consist of documents relating to general Asian American, American Samoa, and Bangladeshi, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Guamanian, Native Hawaiian, Himalayan, Hmong, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Thai, Vietnamese, and multiheritage Asian Americans, illustrating their perspectives on religion, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, immigration, politics, cultural preservation, and family and community life. Including interviews, poems, personal essays, eulogies, legislation, court records, recipes, and excerpts from novels and movie scripts, each document has a short introduction on the author and historical and cultural context, with an emphasis on contemporary documents and including blog posts and e-zine articles. Most are from Hawaii and the West and Northeast Coasts, with some from Alaska, the Midwest, and the Southeast.

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